fieldwork team group photo

What science disciplines do we need?

Research is notoriously parochial. Like binds to like with superglue. Tackling wicked problems that require more than one sub-discipline means finding a strong solvent and quickly…

When I was a young academic in Africa I worked at the University of Botswana. 

As part of my research activities, I was involved with the Tropical Soil Biology and Fertility program, a multi-national outfit focused on improving the agricultural performance of subsistence farmers across Africa, Asia, and South America. 

The idea was to better understand the biology of the many systems that the farmers were using given that they had limited resources to buy fertilizers, pesticides and other inputs to their smallholdings. 

Their best resource was the biology of the production systems they operated. 

As researchers we tried to find the optimal use of plant residues, recycling carbon locally, the incorporation of cover crops, management of crop gardens and the use of agroforestry methods, all designed to maintain nutrient dynamics and carbon balance in subsistence systems. 

Improved nutrient and carbon balance meant increasing the time available for crops before shifting agriculture took place or to improve the speed at which previous cropped areas recovered and grew secondary vegetation. For the farmers, these were wins. 

Leveraging what we could of the biology through ecological understanding to speed those processes or maintain them for longer periods of time. This was science, both basic and applied. 

The lead researchers were soil biologists, ecologists, soil chemists, biodiversity specialists and vegetation ecologists. 

More science disciplines arrive 

Then after a few years of working with this group, the program moved its headquarters from Zimbabwe to Kenya and was housed in the agroforestry institute in Nairobi, part of the UNEP complex. At that point, a shift occurred in the leadership of the program and based on the experience of the previous years also a shift in the focus. 

Farmer’s responses to proposals for soil and crop management and to the science offered to them was seen as far more important in terms of overall outcomes than the strategic science itself. 

Scientists sorting invertebrate specimens with the aid of microscopes
Fieldwork in the Okavango Delta, Bostwana. Photo by Alloporus

Very soon, ecologists and biologists were joined by social scientists. 

These researchers had a very different set of skills, rules of engagement, use of the scientific method, and understanding of the farming systems we were working on. 

I distinctly remember a conference held in Gaborone, Botswana in the early 1990s, when for the first time the two groups of researchers were in the same conference room. The workshop might as well have been held in two different languages with no interpreters. Because clearly the approaches and the styles and the suggested outcomes from the next five-year program was very different depending on which side of the auditorium you sat. 

In the end, the TSBF program moved to that social base and followed a social science agenda. 

At the time I felt that was a mistake and I still do. Many of the original researchers, myself included, moved away from the program as ecological science was lost. 

All science discipline matter

The social aspects of any applied research program are vital to its success but it’s an integration and merger that is required not simply putting the strategic science to one side. 

The subsistence farmers have immediate social issues of how to cope with a shortage of resources. But they also benefit extraordinarily from an understanding of how much nutrient moves around their systems, the value of carbon to their production and resilience, and indeed how better to manage different crop types from a purely nutrient and production perspective. 

They don’t need the jargon but they benefit from what it all means.

Sustainably FED believes that integration of food, ecology and diet is the solution to the problem of subsistence agriculture just as it will be for intensive production. 

It’s not a social problem over a science problem over an economic problem, it is the integration of the three in ways that farmers can use. 

The challenge is how to integrate disparate skills, understandings and expertise together in such a way that will deliver the outcomes we’re looking for. Crudely those outcomes might be 2% growth in production for 30 years or more resilient production within a local system or access to a balanced nutrient and energy mix in available foodstuffs. Any of these will involve multiple disciplines. 

scientists collecting water samples in the Okavango Delta, Botswana
Scientists sampling water for invertebrates in the Okavango Delta, Botswana

Humans are not very good at this integration. 

We’re far better at diving deep into a very narrow topic and that’s essentially the role that researchers, particularly in academia, have played. They become super-specialists and often find it hard to spread deep knowledge into real-world scenarios. 

Consequences for sustainably FED

At sustainably FED we want to make knowledge accessible. 

We want to dip into all the available disciplines and all the available skills and all the available tools and techniques. Whatever it takes to give sustainability a chance.

We believe integration is essential.

Using our after before counterfactual approaches to integrate decision-making and to get the best possible outcomes, we even suspect that the private sector investors will join the party as well. 


Back in my TSBF days tweaks to production systems that achieved marginal gains in resilience or production was the whole point of understanding what was happening to nutrients. A soil biology focus made perfect sense. Biology was a resource each landholder could manage with minimal extra effort and cost.

The social issues of empowerment, access to finance, equity and safety net support were all important too. But any marginal production gains were acute because farmers might not have realised it but sooner or later their shifting systems would intensify making inputs essential.

When the shove and the push arrive, for farmers it is the soil and its biological engine that determines food production to feeding everyone well.

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Hero image by Alloporus


Mark is an ecology nerd who was cursed with an entrepreneurial gene and a big picture view making him a rare beast, uncomfortable in the ivory towers and the disconnected silos of the public service. Despite this he has made it through a 40+ year career as a scientist and for some unknown reason still likes to read scientific papers.

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